A sleeper to Boston is a sound catch

September 10, 1972

When it is summer and there is a game to be played the next day, the only person Carlton Fisk wants to see late at night is the sandman, and even he had better keep it down. Boston's All-Star catcher contends that to do his best—and what player should seek less? he asks—he must get plenty of rest. So it was no surprise that sleepy-eyed Carlton recently bade an unaffectionate farewell to a roommate whose nocturnal prowling and .167 average were more befitting a cat burglar than a ballplayer.

Fisk's request for a new roomie was quickly answered, probably because he is leading the Red Sox in triples (8), home runs (19) and batting (.301), and the Boston management would like to see him continue. In the process Fisk, the most successful Sox catcher in 36 summers, will likely become the first Rookie of the Year to share accommodations with the bat boy.

Boston fans wouldn't mind if he bunked in with a Teddy bear. "I know how much Fisk means to me," says Manager Eddie Kasko, "because I thought I would have to platoon the position. But what must those poor fans think? They probably can't remember the last good catcher Boston had."

Oh, but the bad ones are not that easily forgotten. Red Sox catchers have been known to head for the dugout with only two outs in an inning, which is a minor indiscretion compared to the faux pas of the one who overthrew second when a runner was taking a free base, allowing the opponent to trot over to third. Worst of all was the man who beaned his own pitcher while attempting to throw out a base stealer. Now in a glorious reversal of tradition the Red Sox have Pudge Fisk, an equilateral phenomenon since he is a good catcher who was developed by the Boston organization and bred in New England.

Fisk has naturally become the Red Sock most sought after by fans from Brattlesboro to Biddeford to make public appearances, but it is the one distinction he cares least for. "The demands have become too great; it's getting to be too much of a bother," he says of the sudden acclaim. "I just don't feel the same regional kinship that most of these people do. I can't allow myself to be distracted by such things, to prevent me from improving. I've seen players with all kinds of talent burn themselves out, but I've paid the price and I want to stay here."

Such intensity of feeling from a generally affable 24-year-old can be attributed to sheer competitiveness. Fisk excelled in sports not so much because he sought a professional career but because he felt a compulsion to do well. His high school coach remembers, "He never did like a guy who didn't put out 100%," and that philosophy drew wide attention this July. Fisk did not intend to brew a controversy when he suggested Carl Yastrzemski and Reggie Smith could be doing more; in fact, the Boston press overplayed the incident. But he does believe, as he stated recently, "If I go out and bust my hump for nine innings there is no reason why anybody else can't. I'm not trying to be a martyr. It's just that I'm going to be there doing the best I can all the time, and I think others should, too."

Two years ago the best Fisk could do was hit .229 for Pawtucket of the AA Eastern League, and he thought seriously of quitting baseball because of it. "I knew I was a better player than I looked, so in the end I decided to hang on," he says. Fisk reported to the Sox Triple-A farm team at Louisville the next year, and immediately it was the opposing pitchers who wanted to retire. Under the guidance of Manager Darrell Johnson he started well, made the International League All-Star team and ended the year in Boston, hitting .313 in 14 games. Suddenly Fisk's future was assured.

"My original intention this year was to use him primarily against running teams," says Kasko. "We have always felt he was sound defensively, but he hadn't proven he could hit for average over an entire season. But Duane Josephson got hurt the first week, and I decided to give him his chance. Nobody's beat him out yet. He's our most consistent hitter."

Fisk did not hit full stride until the second week of June, when he boosted his average 41 points to .279. He batted .309 for the month (after a .246 May), and that was only a prelude to his performance in July, when he hit .354, walloped nine homers and drove in 19 runs. By the middle of the month he was leading the majors in slugging percentage and was well on his way to breaking the single-season home-run record by a Red Sox catcher of 17.

All that heavy hitting earned Fisk a spot on the American League All-Star team. He played well in the game, rapping a base hit and handling Wilbur Wood's unfamiliar knuckleball without mishap. His only error occurred at the end of the eighth inning when Fisk, in true Red Sox fashion, congratulated Wood on his win. "It's not over yet," reminded Wilbur.

But though he has found success at the plate, Fisk's defense has deteriorated. He is eighth in fielding among the league's catchers, and in one dismal stretch allowed 10 consecutive steals of second base. Kasko remains unworried. "A rookie catcher has a lot to think about, and if he's hitting well that can be a distraction of sorts, too. As he matures, he'll settle down."

That's exactly the kind of encouragement Fisk thrives on. A similar boost has come from Yastrzemski, who has twice said that the young Red Sox catcher might be another Johnny Bench. "I'm nowhere near him," Fisk said after a three-hit night against Kansas City. "I want to be best in my league first. But who knows what people might be saying in a few years?"

PHOTOPERSISTENT PUDGE PURSUES A BUNT

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)